On the battered veranda of Dr. Hawa Abdi’s family farm outside Mogadishu, she and her nurses lined up what look like dusty bundles. They were, upon closer inspection, newborn babies failing to thrive. The veranda, roofless and open to the bitter blue sky where the seasonal gu rains sputter, serves as a makeshift neonatal ward. To be gentle, Abdi calls the veranda “intensive care.”
It was a death camp, really. None of the babies were likely to survive. First cows die, then babies—this is the grim pattern that presages the cycle of starvation Abdi has watched on this plot of barren earth.
This current famine, Abdi will tell you, is neither a surprise nor an accident. We watch now in horror and disbelief, but all signs, from climate change to war, were well predicted.
When I visited her camp in 2007 and 2008, she already feared the worst. For the past several years, she has watched the famine’s specter lurk at the corners of the mouths of the 90,000 people who live on her farm. She has watched food prices skyrocket, aid groups pull out, and drinking water—sold house to house from the back of a donkey—dwindle. A 50-kilo bag of rice now costs $50.
The drought, of course, has human causes. First, the rise of the militant Hizbul Islam (which was later taken over by the group called Al-Shabab, or the Youth), which attacked the camp in May 2010. (The Daily Beast broke the story.) Demanding “rent” money, its members try to control scant food supplies for starving people. They block fleeing people from leaving famine zones; the more breathing bodies they control, the stronger Al-Shabab counts itself.
But they are only part of the problem. In the Bakara market, bags of rice and wheat stamped with the names of various aid organizations are for sale. Selling aid in war zones is nothing new, thanks to the criminal networks that have long dominated the world’s longest-running failed state. All of these are the complex causes of the worst famine in 60 years, one likely to claim more than the million lives Ethiopia’s did during the 1980s.
And it’s certain to get even more dire. The rains won’t improve until 2013 at the earliest. In the shadow of starvation, disease flourishes. (During the 1990s famine in Somalia, 40 percent of people died from measles.)
The good news is that last week, the Washington inertia that has made matters even worse for 3.7 million Somalis for the past two years came to a halt. Aid groups, like the World Food Program, are now able to obtain the necessary export licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department. Even more important than sending food aid, it’s time to support local markets like Bakara, the one most people use in the capital, by bringing down skyrocketing food costs so people can afford to eat again.
Griswold first wrote about Hawa Abdi in The Tenth Parallel, winner of the 2011 Lukas prize.